Giant Pandas. What’s not to love? They’re furry, cute and cuddly….well at least they look cuddly, from a distance. The ultimate human teddy bear!
A species that has survived for eight million years and with fewer than 2000 left in the world and most of those in China, it stands to good reason they’re the nation’s beloved national treasure.
The Sichuan province is where the majority are lounging about, just chewin’ on bamboo. It’s predicted just over a thousand live in the wild and the China Conservation and Research Centre in Chengdu is home to around 80 of the provinces most famous residents.
I’ll be honest as much as I love a good panda, thinking about them doesn’t send me into a state of pandamonium! (See what I did there!) But…. given Chengdu is kind of on our door step; a hop, skip and a jump south west (or a one hour flight) it makes sense to tick the panda box.
I was also keen to see Chengdu. Another colossal Chinese city of 14 million! They call it the ‘Country of Heaven’ or Tiān fǔ zhi guó often translated as ‘The Land of Abundance’. It’s also been earmarked as the nation’s 4th most liveable city. Not bad out of 656 cities.
It was a three day weekend in China, a national holiday — which in all reality is never a good time to take a vacation with a billion other friendly Chinese faces at your side.
But ignoring all previous shoulder to shoulder encounters with mammoth holiday crowds, we booked our flight to the Panda capital for a fast Friday night flight out.
It was all going as smoothly as one could hope for a Friday night dash to the airport. We arrived with plenty of time, lined up for check in…. had a giggle at the lady in front of us who didn’t appear to know if she was Arthur or Martha, running from one check in counter to the other, bags at both.
But it turns out the joke was on us! We smugly handed over our passports and saw that “look” which we hopefully assumed was just a case of Small Person’s name being spelt wrong again so her passport didn’t match the booking. We gave each other the side ways (crap this better be ok) glance… but it was worse. So much worse.
Our flight was actually Saturday night.
The Friday night flight was already packed to the rafters, so our next option was to wait on standby for a slightly later flight in the hope someone or three decided to
ditch the pandas ‘no-showed’ and we could take their seats. In anticipation we headed to the airport’s Pizza Hut for dinner. Yep the big cheese is supremely popular in the East and the only real option outside of oodles of noodles.
So – pouring beer and pizza into our bellies, we prayed to the airline gods.
But it wasn’t to be…. all flights to Chengdu that night and the next morning were completely full! Nada.
We ended up hightailing it home around 10pm with a cabbie driving at breakneck speed….until there was a lone car, stopped dead in its tracks in the middle of the highway. We swerved erratically, narrowly missing him….and breathe.
The next day we jumped back in the car for the 45 minute drive back to the airport for an afternoon flight. (All the while muttering under my breath, “those bloody pandas better be worth it!”)
As if to remedy the past 24 hours, the Aeroplane Gods had put us in First Class. The first sign of this was the 70’s retro first class lounge, in which one could hide in one of these egg-shaped, red velvet cocoons… and snack on tasty little nuts.
Now, having never had the privilege of travelling first class, it was almost as if the joke was on me (again).
I’m acutely aware, this will probably be the first and LAST time I ever fly first class… so did I mention the flight was an hour? Yes! ONE single, solitary hour. One single hour to partake in those oh so heavenly lie flat beds and that free-flowing champagne (which never came!) (It is China right!) More nuts and apple juice all round. But I did lie flat under the big yellow duvet cover for the entire flight, right down to the wire.
I reckon the flight attended had to literally rip that cover from me as we approached the runway.
Ruined for life.
“Those bloody pandas better be good,” I muttered again as we touched down (in what I later discovered was the world’s 30th busiest airport)! #TrivialFact
So our first impressions of Chengdu – a city with some seriously strapping skyscrapers. Which when compared with Xi’an’s rather low lying landscape always has me a little giddy with excitement. After all, this city has seemingly earned itself the title of China’s most successful economy!
More than 260 ‘Fortune 500’ companies have established branches in Chengdu with US$8.8 billion plunged into the city in foreign investment.
This, of course all adding an extra dash of international flavour and a mass of expats.
I could almost trick myself into thinking I was in Hong Kong with this super chic, rooftop pool bar! (Let’s not mention the fact that Chengdu has one of the lowest annual sunshine totals nationally, with less sunshine annually than much of Northern Europe!) Of course the Chengdu saying goes, “Sunny days are rare, but teahouses are abundant!”
Step outside though and there’s no mistaking, this is China! For all it’s modern contemporary spots, hip eateries, high end shopping centres and shimmering high rises, in equal measure you’ll spy the hallmarks of quintessential China.
Ramshackle alleyways, Tuk Tuks and bicycles with mandatory sky-high loads on the back, locals gathered in side streets fervently playing mahjong and sipping tea; traffic jams that resemble the jumbled power lines that drape themselves across the city.
Wandering through the city’s popular Narrow and Wide Alleyway, the ancient setting a little too man-made for my liking – it was the evidently popular ‘ear cleaning’ that caught me by surprise. A little investigating tells me it’s a popular Chengdu hobby. Long metal skewers are used to bang on the sticks inside your ear – cleaning vibrating and massaging – all in the name of promoting blood circulation!
Mention Chengdu to any local friends in Xi’an and forget about the pandas (or the ear cleaning,) for them it’s all about the food! Sichuan is of course famous for it’s chillies and peppercorns — never more prominent than in one of China’s favourite dishes Hot Pot. The whole idea is for it to be so hot it literally numbs your tongue! Sugar and spice and all things nice? Only for the bravest.
But what about those bloody pandas?
Up at the crack of dawn (I muttered those by now familiar words)! We’d been told to get their nice and early to avoid the holiday crowds and have a chance to watch the pandas at play. With our expat friends in tow, we jumped aboard the happy bus, driving about an hour out of town to see these creatures in all their glory.
The Chengdu Field Research Centre for Giant Pandas was definitely an impressive spot. Covering 165 acres, this wasn’t a rundown poor version of a zoo (as can be found in many parts of China) but a relatively clean, green, healthy environment for both the pandas and the tourist!
We wandered along the pathways flanked with lush greenery and there they were, enclosed but openly on display lolling about in the sun…..
Or just smothering themselves in bamboo as they tried to shovel in as much as possible….Trivial fact: Giant Pandas eat around 40 kilos of fresh bamboo a day!
And they spend over 40 percent of the day, sprawled out like this, sleeping. (Sounds good to me!)
Specifically dedicated to breeding pandas, it’s divided into the giant panda breeding zone, baby giant panda care zone and the research centre.
These were the babies having some rough and tumble play time.
Their average life expectancy in the wild is 15-20 years and in captivity, 30 years.
Known as ‘Xiong mao’ in Chinese… there’s no doubt they are a global phenomenon… they’ve even made it into the famous movie ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ which incorporates many elements of Chengdu!
Those bloody pandas….they were definitely worth the effort.
This is China.